Here we are thirty years on and I’m still amazed that people think Faces of Death is a real snuff movie. I suspect that many of those people have never seen it, only heard second or third hand tales of the scenes therein but anyone who has seen it will be able to tell you, the authenticity of the movie is about as real as the “controversial” real murder at the end of Snuff. Once you see it, the initial shock wears off, replaced by a sense of embarassment at having been stoked to see something so taboo revealed to be state fair grade chicanery.
Oddly, Faces of Death, a child of the Mondo film trend, spawned a subculture of atrocity reels that eclipse the old man, himself, in ways you can’t possibly imagine. Sure, Death Faces, Traces of Death, Death Scenes, Atrocities, etc., were packed to the fucking rafters with grisly newsreel footage of real murder, suicide and traffic accidents gone horribly awry but not one of them had the appeal of Faces of Death. The box, sitting on the shelf at any given video store, was easily one of the most threatening items in the store, bearing a white skull on a black background, proudly proclaiming that it had been banned in more than 40 countries and we can’t possibly forget that mean looking Gorgon Video logo. The sequels featured similarly creepy covers and pushed the boundaries of what qualified as entertainment. The original movie, scarcely available on DVD, coming to you in a couple of days is, quite possibly, the most exciting DVD release of the year for me.
There really isn’t a plot to Faces of Death. If you’re just joining us, is it any surprise to you that supposedly real footage of carnage would ever be presented to the viewing public as entertainment? Faces takes the idea of the traffic jam at the car accident and presents it to you for your viewing pleasure. There’s a lot going on here, police standoffs with criminals, suicides, a cannibal cult orgy, an electric chair execution and patrons of an exotic restaurant pounding a live monkey over the head in order to eat the fresh brains right out of the skull. And that’s just to name a few. There is also slaughterhouse footage that I’m sure is circulating in PETA propaganda and poaching footage. The whole thing is presided over by Dr. Francis Gross who narrates the entire affair with a crypt keeper pun festival.
And that’s about it. But what makes this the most exciting release of the year for me is that this is a genuine cult item. Presented so perfectly as the real deal and feared by the public without any kind of real analysis. People just assume that this is all real death footage and only the most adventurous of horror fans ever dared to step into its world. While most movies have had their hoods lifted and every part of their insides left up to critics and fans for discussion, Faces of Death has managed to elude this treatment and the mystique of this so-called shocker has managed to endure for decades. Finally, Gorgon and Dark Sky Films have brought the movie to the fore and pulled aside the curtain so you can see what’s going on here. You get to see the feature as it originally ran in 42nd Street theaters but they also include a couple of featurettes with the special effects artists and the editor of the film in case you had any doubts about what you were watching. Additionally, director Conan Le Clair (real name John Schwartz) is on hand for a commentary track.
Compared to today’s standards, Faces of Death is pretty foolish stuff. The scenes that are staged are clearly staged, complete with shitty actors and our host, Dr. Gross is a ridiculous parody of a mad scientist. How anyone ever thought that this was real is beyond me. Certainly, some of the footage in the movie is actual newsreel footage, but according to the filmmakers, the Japanese money guys for whom this movie was produced insisted that they get to see the entire story of the death scene including the events leading up to it and the aftermath. It’s a mystery to me what sort of person thinks that that kind of footage is available but you can see the problem that the filmmakers were faced with. How do we get this stuff? Obviously, we’re going to have to fake it.
Back in the day when I used to swap tapes with people through the mail, I would wind up with these real-death movies occasionally. Someone would insist that because I was so hung up on extreme Japanese gore that I should check out this tape or that and would throw a copy in with the rest of the stuff. It didn’t take long for me to gather a respectable collection of movies that I never watched. They came in all flavors, too but I’ve never really been into this sort of movie and I question the sanity of anyone who is. I feel like I can keep Faces of Death at arm’s length, though, because of its status in the culture and because most of it is fake and clearly so. The other badasses, which you can find a comprehensive list and examination of in the Creation Cinema book, Killing For Culture, an admittedly awesome read and exploration of the snuff movie myth, are movies I would rather not associate with.
It was really only a matter of time before this sort of thing came around. Movies like Mondo Cane and Africa Addio present some genuinely gruesome footage but up until this point, no one had dedicated an entire running time to death and carnage. Is it worth it? Yes. I can’t say enough how completely absurd Faces of Death is but fans of cult movies and a stomach for the real shit, including the animal death (which accounts for most of the bannings), Faces acts as a solid artifact of cult cinema, preserved here as only it should be. You get all the goods and the whole story on one awesome DVD and if you REALLY want a good look at everything, it’s available on Blu-ray, too.